Chinese scientists on Thursday successfully conducted their first test of an experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor, which replicates the energy generating process of the sun.
The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor, nicknamed "artificial sun", was tested at Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Plasma Physics in Hefei, capital city of east China's Anhui Province.
During the experiment, deuterium and tritium atoms were forced together at a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius.
"At that temperature, the super heated plasma, which is neither a gas, a liquid nor a solid, should begin to give off its own energy," scientists explained.
The first tests lasted nearly three seconds, and generated an electrical current of 200 kiloamperes, Wan Yuanxi, general manager of EAST, told Xinhua News Agency, adding that the experiments were continuing.
The device is planned to eventually create a plasma lasting 1,000 consecutive seconds, the longest ever fusion reactor run. Wan said the deuterium extracted from one liter of seawater could produce energy equivalent to that generated by burning 300 liters of gasoline thanks to the fusion technology.
If thermonuclear fusion technology is commercialized, it may provide energy to mankind for more than 100 million years, Wan said.
Li Jiangang, director of the Institute of Plasma Physics, said the results of the test met the expectations and represented a great breakthrough in thermonuclear fusion research.
"That means we lead all our competitors by at least a decade," said Li. "The breakthrough will make it possible for mankind to harness a safe, clean and endless source of energy."
The EAST is an upgrade of China's first-generation Tokamak device and the first of its kind in the world, said Chinese scientists. Its construction took eight years and a 200 million yuan (US$25 million) investment from the Institute of Plasma Physics.
The column-like device, made with special stainless steel, towers 12 meters high and weighs 400 tons.
Compared with similar devices in other countries, EAST was the most cost-effective, said Li.
The EAST would be the most advanced thermonuclear fusion reactor in the world for the next ten years, said Dr. Gary Jackson from General Atomics of the US, who participated in the research.
Unlike traditional nuclear fission reactors, splitting atoms to create energy and produce dangerous radioactive waste, the EAST uses nuclear fusion to compress atoms at extremely high temperatures to generate energy that would produce very little pollution.
Scientists theorize that a fully functional fusion reactor would provide cheaper, safer, cleaner and endless energy and reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels.
The EAST is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is the largest international program dedicated to thermonuclear fusion experiments.
In 2003, China joined the 4.6-billion-euro ITER which was originally initiated by the US and Russia. The first operation of ITER might be in 2016.
Among the six partners involved in this ambitious plan, the EU will cover 50 percent of the total budget. The remaining five, the US, Japan, Russia, the Republic of Korea and China, will pay 10 percent each.
"The EAST is the only prototype nearest to the ITER and, thus, it can serve ITER advanced research in terms of engineering technology and physics," said Wan.
However, even the most optimistic estimates on ITER commercialization view it as needing another half-century of development.
(Xinhua News Agency September 29, 2006)